Aural Fixations: An Interview with Lim Ting Li


Of all things cinematic, the most commonly forgotten thing is probably sound. Good sound, unlike a good image, or a good scene, is at its best when it goes unnoticed: recall Jurassic Park or WALL-E. Unlike visuals, good sounds build the film universe right in your head without you realizing at all. 

Lim Ting Li knows good sound when she hears it. 

As Director of Sound at Mocha Chai Laboratories and a seasoned pro, one is hardpressed to find anyone in Singapore with a more dazzling portfolio in sound than her: from Boo Junfeng’s debut Sandcastle to Kirsten Tan’s Pop Aye, to Tan Pin Pin’s latest IN TIME TO COME, amongst other works.

Here, SINdie’s Alfonse Chiu chats with Ting Li about sound, her passion, and a life in constant pursuit of it. 

You originally wanted to be lighting designer, why this dream? 

When I was young, I watched a local production of Oliver Twist and I was very amazed by it; I just thought that is what I want to do next time, when I grow up. My parents decided to leave during the intermission because they didn't understand it - they dragged me home with them, and I was very sad. This single memory, however, kind of propelled me through the years.

Later on, I studied Arts for my 'O' Level, and I was in the Photography Club of my secondary school, though my experiences there did not help at all. Originally, my purpose in joining was to learn more about lighting and composition, but then it turns out that the club was a basically just the teacher-in-charge, who had a very expensive camera, framing up a shot, asking you to look through the viewfinder, and just pressing the shutter. I recall one Christmas, she brought us to see the lights along Orchard Road, and just when we thought we’d get the chance to be creative for once, she framed up a shot and asked us to press the shutter, yet again. We didn't get to compose anything on our own at all.

This dream died on the first day of Ngee Ann Polytechnic. Originally, I wanted enroll in LaSalle College of the Arts, but back then, private universities had a reputation of being a dumping ground for those who cannot make it into other local universities and can afford it, so my father didn't want me to go there.

So, even though I really wanted to do Theatre, the next closest thing for me is Ngee Ann Polytechnic; he gave me the ultimatum that I could go wherever I choose, so long as it is a public school. This is kind of funny actually, because I never did anything for theater; it was just something that I could picture me doing, though I didn't actually do it. Nowadays, I don't even go to theaters that often.

At what point in Polytechnic did you decide to pursue sound instead?

It was during my second year in Ngee Ann, when we started to learn more in-depth about each department. I had a lecturer, Jürgen Frenz, who really encouraged me in terms of pursuing sound.  In Year Two, there was a music project where we were supposed to record a band and I guess I was with a bunch of people that were musically inclined, while I had no music training whatsoever; they really knew how a kick drum is supposed to sound like, where a guitar should be placed in the track, that kind of technicalities you know. Anyway, I was marked down for that project, and I recall that he personally called me and told me that though my assignment was a C, he thought I have talent in this discipline, and that he hoped I would continue with it.

When you do school assignments, there are always certain guidelines to follow, so even though you might have an interest or drive for it, sometimes and somehow things just don't work out in your favor. That was one of the very few projects that I actually scored low marks for. His encouragement was a very big factor in me choosing to specialize in sound, because in my course, you had to choose—they have Film, Video, Sound, and Animation. In Year Two, you pick two out of four, then in Year Three you choose one out of the two you picked previously.

I chose Sound and Video in Year Two, then Sound in Year Three. However, I did a film graduation project instead of a multi-track album, which some other sound students chose, because when we first started working on sound with picture, I realized that I stood out more, and that I enjoy working with picture than without.

My graduation film was, of course, Aik Khoon, and I remember spending so much time on it; as I lived in Upper Changi at the time, while Ngee Ann is in Clementi, it took me an hour and a half just to go to school, and my total commuting time everyday was around three hours. To make the most out of it, I would go to school in the morning and stay there until the facilities close; I would be in the studio doing a lot of work for the film, and because every student only has a certain fixed number of hours that they can book the studios for, I would chase down lecturers and beg them to book extra hours for me in the studio.

You also did a lot of production work then, how was it like?

At that time, I was on the crossroad between production and sound, so when I graduated I was doing a lot of production work—as production hand, production manager, producing short films on the side, this sort of work—and it was good, I felt fulfilled doing it; there is always the adrenaline rush while you are on a shoot, and there is a certain kind of solidarity and camaraderie when you are with the crew.

It was fulfilling in a sense, but then I realized that I am not really involved in the creative decisions—I was more logistics and moneyman, and every phone call was life-and-death. When you are coordinating a shoot and something goes wrong, the shoot won't happen! I didn’t take care of myself at all; I was always tired, and I worked long hours.

Then, on the side I would do sound design; my day job was in production, and in my evenings I have a setup that I invested in to do sound.

I was drained, and I couldn't have a meal in peace, because there would be ten different calls coming in all the time. Eventually, I took a break in production, though I met a lot of different people through my work. One of the people that I met was Sun Koh, who was doing the Lucky 7 project at that time and needed an associate producer, so she asked me to come on board, which I did.

Through Lucky 7 I met a lot of directors—basically the who's who of the film scene at that time—and it was very good for me to work on set, because then I could see all the things that could go wrong for audio post-production later on.

It is important to know what other departments are doing, even wardrobe: how do you mike someone wearing a police uniform versus a cotton t-shirt? These are things that you learn on set, and it was good for a sound designer to know. It was also around the same time as Lucky 7 that I got my first freelance gig to do sound for Yellow Box Studios. I did Wee Li Lin's Gone Shopping, and Kelvin Tong's Men in White as part of this team where I met Jerry Teo, my mentor. He taught me so much, and till today, I still practise the things he taught me.              
While I was working on those projects, I told them about the Lucky 7 project and my involvement, and obviously they couldn't support a whole feature film, but they did lend me a lot of support though they were never credited. It was also after Lucky 7 that Yellow Box officially hired me, which was when I stopped all production work. After I joined Yellow Box full time, I was finally, exclusively, a sound designer.

Would you mind elaborating a little bit more about your time at Yellow Box Studios?

I was there a total of around three years. Yellow Box then had two divisions: Yellow Box 1 was in Telok Ayer and did commercial jobs; while Yellow Box 2 did long-form projects like films, broadcasts, infotainment shows, and documentaries.

I was in Box 2, and I was part of a team of sound designers; I started with smaller jobs until they felt that I was confident to do bigger ones. At that time, directors like Boo Junfeng were already making their other short films, and becoming filmmakers in their own right, and they would bring their films in, and those were the ones that I got to work on.  Due to those jobs and works for peers that entrusted their works to me, I slowly got to do other projects with Yellow Box as well; eventually, I got to headline my own projects.

Then, the financial crisis happened.

It was at this point that I decided to go freelance so that I could choose the projects I want to work on, rather than just do whatever they ask me to do. Around this time, Junfeng made Sandcastle, which went to Cannes. The fact of the matter was that, had I stayed at Yellow Box, I could never do a film like Sandcastle, because they just would not have the resources to go there—I can't devote as much time to it as I want to, because there would be all these other projects that need work too.




What did it feel like to be in Cannes?

It was quite heartening to see how films really transcend nationality, languages, and age. I remember there was a screening—not within Cannes itself, because Critic's Week had screenings in the villages around Cannes, so there would be a cinema out of nowhere in the village where a lot of people would travel to watch the films—and there were all these old French folks crying as they watched the film.

At that time, I have not really lived overseas yet, so for me that was an eye-opener to see that a film we made in our little country could have such an effect on foreigners; and they couldn't believe that Junfeng made the film, because they expected someone much older.

Unfortunately, for me, the festival was, to be honest, a little underwhelming, because it was a festival meant for producers and directors, not craftsmen. It seemed more networking than technical showcase; the events scheduled for us was really underwhelming, because it was more of a sales and distribution kind of setting, rather than craftsmen and masterclasses. Nevertheless, it was unbelievable to be there, almost dream like.

After that, what precipitated you going to the National Film and Television School?

I actually quit school twice.

After Ngee Ann, I worked for a year, and then I went to NTU Wee Kim Wee School of Communications to do Mass Communications. I quit after four months because I did not agree with what they were teaching, and I couldn't fit in. I remember there was a module where we watched this documentary that was supposed to be interesting, because it showed both the current government and the opposition party. Turns out, the ‘government’ that was shown was the late MM Lee Kuan Yew, and the opposition was him too—this time fighting for Singapore’s independence. I wasn't a person made for academia and there were many papers to write. So, after four months, I quit and went back to working.

After working for a while, I realized that I still need some form of paper qualifications, so I went to School of Audio Engineering; a private college that has a branch in Singapore. The degree course was only one year, so I thought to myself that I am going to take it, finish the year, and get my paper. It was so bad that I quit after just one month—they weren't even teaching sound. They had people taking different disciplines in the same class writing a thesis paper. That wasn't what I wanted, so I quit, much to my parents' dismay, again.

Around the same time, I met Anthony Chen, who was like a Fairy Godfather; he was one year my senior in Ngee Ann Poly, we knew of each other but we didn't know each other that well. The day I quit NTU, he called me personally telling me to not quit, and that he thought it would be good for me, because I had a very hands' on diploma, so having a more theory-based degree would be beneficial because now I can cover all my bases.

I was actually very puzzled by the call at that time, because we were not close; he just thought that it was something he must tell me. During that period, I was with Timothy Chen, his classmate, who decided to quit as well. He told Anthony that I was quitting too, which led to him calling me from out of the blue and talking to me for hours telling me not to quit.

Me being all sorts of confused, I just told him that while I appreciate his concerns, it was a decision that I have already made. The next time I met him was at the Chapman University Graduation Show; Anthony was already in NFTS at that time, and he was back for the holidays.

He asked me what I was doing, and I replied very shamefacedly that I was at SAE. He immediately started chiding me: 'Why are you there? Why? You shouldn't be there!'  Afterwards, he started telling me about this course in NFTS, and I was like, ‘Wow, sound design! Learning to tell a story through sound! Evoke emotion with sound!’ When I heard it, I thought that was exactly what I wanted to study, that it was what I was searching for; a lot of people have asked me before how do I know when a soundtrack is ready, and I always say that when I feel it at my fingertips, that is when it is ready. I couldn't really verbalize that feeling, and people were always mystified by my answer; to have heard it put across to me in this way showed me that it is something that I was searching for this whole time.

I knew my parents would not send me there: it was overseas and entering was hard—they only accept 8 students a year per department—so I wasn't even sure that I would get in. Anthony, however, was really adamant about it: he told me that he would check the deadline for application, and when he found out that it was over, he wrote to the school and told them to look at my application.

There were three rounds of application, one was submission, one was interview, and the last was a one-week workshop at the school that you have to pay for. I got through the first two rounds, and was invited to the workshop. When I got the notice, I had to come clean because I couldn’t disappear for one week without my parents knowing where I was. They were furious, to say the least. I had already quit school twice, so they were definitely not going to trust me at another school, and it was also so expensive and so far away.

Anthony came down to my house to talk to my mom—he had already done Ah Ma by then, so he had a certain kind of reputation and credibility—and he told her how I need to go there, because it was incredibly limiting in Singapore, and so on and so forth. Somehow, he convinced her to let me go. 

After this, I went and got a scholarship from MDA, which made completing the course possible.




What was studying at NFTS like? Were there certain experiences that really stayed with you?

It was really an eye-opener. One of the main things I learnt was that there was this vocabulary of talking about sound. You know how we Singaporeans have some of those little common habits; we don't ask questions, we don't make comments about someone else's film etc. When I went in, I already had some work experience compared to some of my peers, so technically I was ahead of them by a little. However, I didn't have the courage to speak up, even if something didn't look right or feels off, I couldn't explain why it didn't look right, why it didn't sound right, why it wasn't working.

Seeing how others do it made me learn the vocabulary needed to communicate ideas, for example, if I told you something like 'At this point of around three hundred hertz, I am going to bring it up by 3 decibels,' it will mean nothing to you, but if I say ‘I need this character to sound more authoritative, so I'm going to give his voice more body,’ this means something.

This was one of the most important things—the soft skills of dealing with the director, communicating an idea, and speaking about sound. Of course there were also the technical skills that I learnt, such as how to mix; we had many visiting tutors like Paul Davis, who did We Need to Talk About Kevin, and our mixing mentor was Graham B. Hartstone who mixed Blade RunnerAliens, and Eyes Wide Shut. We had all these really big and international and established professionals guiding us on our short films, the school really widened my horizons.

All the departments—there are around fifteen in the school—serve the directing, documentary, and animation department, so it runs like a studio in a sense. In the first year, you do exercises; the school would give you films that are quite ambiguous, and we would apply sound design to it, and because they are so ambiguous, the sound design will lead the film to different places. Even if you are watching the same footage for eight students, you would be watching eight different films, because the sound changes the exact same film, and it made me realize that the potential for sound is vaster than I thought, because those were the exact same edit, exact same shots, exact same color grade, just different sound, and there were eight different films.

Even though it was two very intense years, I learnt so much while I was there. We made three graduation films in total—one documentary, one narrative fiction, and one animation. A year after we graduated, the school sent the animations in for the Motion Picture Sound Editors Golden Reel awards in Los Angeles—MPSE is the sound guild based in California— and my work was nominated along with some of my peers. That film was Robomax, and it won.

It was really cool to have won it. The previous winner was a Malaysian girl who was a senior of mine, and she talked to us and told us that no matter if you win or not, just prepare a speech or something, because she went up and blanked out, and she didn't want it to happen to us. Out of seven nominees, six were from my school. I have no idea why, but right before the awards, I got super nervous—all the nominated works were brilliant, so everyone had quite an equal chance of winning, then I remembered her words and thought of some people I would like to thank if I did win. When I won, I felt like bursting into tears. It was actually a very boring ceremony because all the winners just went up and said thank you and then went down, so my speech was the longest speech of the night and for a student film to boot.

Do you mind sharing more about your life at that point, having won an internationally recognized award and built a family?

I have already left school by then, and was working in the UK. I got pregnant while I was in school, so when I graduated, I had a birth certificate, a marriage certificate, and a Master's degree. I actually mixed Robomax while pregnant, and I was due anytime. Whenever I mix, my belly would just lurch, because the sounds were really loud. I couldn't reach the knobs on the mixer anymore, so I'd have to stand up and stretch to reach the higher knobs. My husband was actually my classmate in sound; while our child probably wasn't the first NFTS baby, he definitely was the first NFTS pure breed sound design baby. 

Balancing my pregnancy and my work in school wasn't very difficult actually, because I had a very smooth pregnancy—I didn't puke once throughout the entire thing—and being pregnant gave me a lot of discipline that I would not have otherwise. In our line of work we could and often work very long hours, and because I knew that my priority is me and my baby's health, I really gave myself a really stringent schedule.

Whenever I was in school, I would put in a hundred and ten percent into work, but I would leave at seven sharp, to go home and make healthy dinners and stuff. Towards the end, while we were finishing the mix, the school was afraid that I would go into pre-mature labor, so they made concessions for a backup mixer and other contingencies, in case I couldn't see through the completion of the film. This didn't happen in the end; I managed to finish the film because my baby was late.

What did you do after graduation from NTFS?

I moved to Portugal for a year, to my in-law's place to learn how to take care of a child, and also because I needed support in of taking care of the baby; I wasn't working for the six months after having the child, and I recovered quite badly from my C-section. After half a year though, I was dying to work already. Following a year in Portugal, we moved back to London, and that was when I started working again, and left my kid in the good and expensive hands of the childcare service in UK.

After NFTS, I mainly worked on feature films instead of short films, though they were still mostly independent films. There was an Irish drama called A Nightingale Falling, an Italian one called Io Arlecchino, and a very, very ambitious Russian project called Dau, I spent a good year on that first as dialogue editor, then as a foley artist, and then near the end, as a sound effects editor. There were also other projects that I worked on, for Redbull and other clients. During that time in UK, I was also working on a lot of Singapore films, such as Liao Jiekai's As You Were; Junfeng’s Apprentice; and Eva Tang’s The Songs We Sang.




What precipitated the move back to Singapore?

I was in the projection room at the Esplanade for the premiere of The Songs We Sang, when I met Chai Yeewei, who was there to deliver the Digital Cinema Package of the film. We knew of each other, but we never met before; and while we were in the projection room, doing final technical checks to the film, we had a chat and he started to say that he was building a Dolby Atmos Dubbing Theatre, and that he was looking for someone to run it. He knew I was living in the UK, so he was asking for my recommendations. As not many people in Singapore have experiences running a Dolby or mixing in a Dolby certified mixing stage, I was recommending him names from within the region.

Somewhere and somehow in our conversation, he became convinced that I was the one to run it. Although this offer was very sudden, it was also timely, because I just finished my projects in the UK and was in a lull period; I had a chat with my husband about the possibilities of running a place like that, and we decided to give it a shot.

So, I came back to Singapore, invested some money, and became a partner at Mocha Chai Laboratories. My parents were really pleased, and they were really supportive and helpful. We were on our own in the UK and it was a little tough. Though the UK industry has better work-life balance, we were truly alone. Moreover, I also really missed working on local films.

How did you feel your creative control over projects have changed throughout your career?

I think that whenever you are in a session with the director, you need to constantly analyze the director's state of mind. Some directors want exactly what they envision, so with those kinds of directors, I know I can't be too pushy, even if I spot a bad idea.

It takes time to gain the trust of a director such that they will allow you to contribute creatively, and I think I have been very lucky, because most of the directors I work with, they have worked on multiple projects with me in the pasts, like Jiekai and Junfeng. We have already built up the rapport.

With Junfeng, for example, he gives me the film with minimal notes these days; he would just pass me the film and waits for what I could come up with. I would like to think that over time, I have learnt his taste—what he likes, what he doesn't like; we have a very fluid working relationship in that sense, and if I think something isn't right or working, I have the privilege of telling him very directly that it wasn't working, and no offense would be taken, because it would all be serving the film.

It takes a lot of time to built to this stage, so I guess it is very important to sense the director's psyche at that point in time; some directors are very anxious by the time the film reaches audio post-production, because that is pretty much the last step that they can fix or alter the film, in a sense.

Even though I am a sound designer, I feel that one has to pay attention to how the director's feeling, and take the time to earn their trust, to listen to them, and speak in the language that they understand so that they will trust you enough to do what needs to be done for the film.

What would you say your design philosophy is like?

I don't have so much a design philosophy as just a personal philosophy, which is that at the end of the day, you have to be really proud of what you make, because the credits doesn't tell anybody your circumstance in the project.

The credits don’t tell anyone how much time you got or how much budget was allocated, it only says that you did it. People will only know whether it is a good film or bad film. For me, regardless of how much time or money I was given, as long as I agree to take on the project, I have to see through it to a hundred percent; there is no compromise to this, because ten years down the road, a film student is going to pick it up and watch it and they are not going to know under what conditions I was working in for it, they will just know whether it is shit or not.

This is something that I sincerely believe in. I also believe that your calling card is the film you are working on now, because that film will be the one bringing on the next film, and the next film will bring on the next, and so on and so forth. Your best work will always be the next film; this is something that Christopher Doyle said in a masterclass. And maybe that is why I am very overworked, because I refuse to relent on this aspect. 

What kind of films would you want to work on next and what is your biggest hope for yourself and the Singapore film scene?

I would like to work on more animation, because that is pretty much a clean slate for you to do whatever you want, you are not burdened by a pre-determined soundscape to built on, and you get to decide what goes in your world and what stays; I would like to work on more genre films as well. 

I hope that we have a film industry that is truly sustainable, that we could commit fully to the idea of being able to do this for a living. I would hope that there are more specialized craftsmen in the industry, not just directors and producers, but people who want to go into specific craft, like production design, sound design, visual effects, because I feel that as our content growing stronger, we need all these technical and creative craftsmen to support these ideas, it is only then that all these ideas can come alive. To me, feature films are like marathons, while short films are like sprints. You need to work on a marathon in broad strokes steadily; it is easy to make great scenes, but a great film, that is much harder.




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